School bus cameras are used worldwide, as seen in a screen capture from a retailer video. (Photo: Uzun Cem via YouTube)

The use of cameras on school buses generated debate at the City Council meeting Monday as the city manager requested authorization to put a five-year contract for school bus transportation out to bid.

The cameras, as audiovisual recording devices, must be approved by the council under the city’s surveillance ordinance. They were first installed on district buses in 2013.

Each year footage is used to explore between 30 and 60 incidents, which can range from confirming that a driver stopped at a railroad crossing, documenting a traffic accident or determining if a child is misbehaving – or helping find a child who got off at the wrong stop. The recordings also ensure that drivers and monitors are doing their jobs correctly, officials said.

Parents are notified that “buses are equipped with audio and visual equipment” when they complete a school transportation forms at the start of the school year. Recordings are supposed to be overwritten after 30 days if there are no incidents that need to be preserved. Though enforcement of that schedule has lapsed, said James Maloney, chief operating officer of Cambridge Public Schools, data will be erased regularly going forward.

The district aims to have a person aboard all afternoon bus routes just to serve as monitor, but staffing can be difficult, Maloney said.

Considering that “a lot of times we don’t have bus monitors where somebody is absent or sick,” vice mayor Alanna Mallon said during the conversation, “I think it’s really critical for the parents in the district to understand what happened on the bus if there should be an investigation.”

Mallon said she received calls from parents whose children ride special education buses who said that the audio recording is important for them.

But, noting that children of color are often disproportionately disciplined, councillor Quinton Zondervan asked about district breakdowns of how the recording data are used in enforcing behavior.

Information about student suspensions is online; Maloney told Zondervan that the district will begin tracking separately the incidents that occur on school transportation.

The district’s transportation department provides more than 900,000 student trips annually on 140 vehicles run by Eastern Bus (the yellow buses) and SP&R Transportation (specialized vans and small buses), according to its website. The School Department’s current contract with Eastern Bus expires Aug. 31.

The council approved the continued use of surveillance cameras (with Zondervan the sole dissenting vote) and the city’s request for a five-year contract for bus service.

Surveillance items slip through

It followed surveillance ordinance debate a week earlier, when 45 items came forward on a surveillance technology impact list and Zondervan, chair of the council’s Public Safety Committee, set about questioning a panel of city staffers regarding items that arrived amended at the  Feb. 24 meeting without councillor discussion. “I’m going to ask my colleagues to bear with me and fasten your seat belts, because this is a it’s a lot of information,” Zondervan said.

But after a comprehensive look at a policy beginning work in 2016 – for concerns dating back years earlier – that drew significant attention and praise from the American Civil Liberties Union, councillors seemed to have little patience for the review. Though a handful of items were referred for discussion this week, Mallon pushed forward on the rest, calling for a vote on the bulk of the items that passed 6-3. Zondervan, Patty Nolan and Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler were on the losing side.

Later, Zondervan noted to the council that three of the items had never been to committee – meaning councillors had never examined three technologies falling under their own painstakingly written surveillance ordinance, and passed them seemingly without noticing. No one responded, but a “yikes” was heard from the audience. 

“I don’t see further discussion on that matter,” Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui said.


Marc Levy contributed to this report.

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